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Playing Against Your Culture

“Why shouldn’t I be able to play a Latino character, even if I’m not a Latino, but I can look and pass for a Latino?” this actor asked me a couple weeks ago... and let me honestly tell you that his tone also made it feel as more of a challenge, even if it wasn’t intentional, but who am I to judge?

I feel I should share our exchange simply to continue the conversations and to gather more perspectives on the never ending topic of proper #diverse #casting. I should also mention that I actually just commented yesterday about these similar thoughts on another thread. Now let me clarify that I wasn’t specifically asked for my thoughts / input on that thread, I simply shared my perspective and I was just being social on social media... and appreciating all the different threads and the variety of comments. All was cool and there were some awesome and respectful points of view.

Anyway, back to this actor that tried to challenge me with those hard to answer questions if you can’t truly be honest with those asking or listening... Listen I said: I’m not going to try to teach you a lesson here, I’m not trying to start an argument with you and certainly I’m not going to be the one to tell you what to do or not to do. At the end of the day, it’s basically up to you and you alone to take a stand and hopefully make the right choice... I can only provide my own humble perspective here. Also I felt the need to remind him that I wasn’t going to claim that every BIPOC artist feels this exact same way.

— Okay sure... you may pass for one us because you may look like one of us. You can sound like one of us because of your extensive dialect training. Good for you... And I shouldn’t have to place a warning here that what I’m about to say is just to have a little laugh... But I mean, yes I’m aware of your curiosity why you would want to play one of us... we are exotic and we have spice and we’re really awesome dancers, with lots of rhythm, we are truthful romantics, amazing poets... (I could keep going... the list is endless ) ha ha ha, I let out a little chuckle so he knew I was making a little joke, (actually quoting a couple lines from my one man show come think of it).

And I shouldn’t have to say that now I might get a bit serious about the ongoing growth on the topic here... Look you also claim and argue that you should be able to play one of us because you have “mastered” our accent? I continued. —But are you sure you truthfully know the subtle differences that exist between the way let’s say a Chicano from East LA hard working parent, or a nuyorican detective, a Mexican Doctor, a Cuban guitarist, a Central American revolutionary, a Colombian banker, a Chilean professor or the specific cadence and intonation that an Argentinian will use when he/she talks and behaves? Our diverse variety of dialects and its placement? Are you able to tell me that you truly have lived it in your own skin? If you think you have... you better talk to someone, because that’s a whole different topic dude. Can you honestly without a doubt look me straight in the eyes and claim that you know what it’s like “to be” one of us... to have lived our life that we have lived? Have you felt in your own skin and bones, our hate that we have experienced, whether it be because of the way we authentically may sound when we speak or simply based on the colour of skin? Are you aware of the subtle little things that may suddenly bring an avalanche of love (as a culture in general?) Are these questions even resonating with you? — I could keep going forever, trust me.

Look man, the bottom line is, at the end of the day, it is simply about respect and being authentic to the world around us. I have always said and please listen up if you are feeling a bit threatened at the moment, or if you think I’m challenging your acting chops or you feel your methods are being questioned... And yes I get it we’re acting, we’re playing various characters sure, but this goes beyond that, there’s a different deeper issue here of course. I’m not at all asking you to stop acting or playing or having fun with characters different than yourself, of course it would be boring to just play ourselves... And this also goes way beyond the immediate need to work, (as artists we all go through that feeling every single day of our artistic life when we don’t happen to be booked on some set, or in a play, or under some contract in a studio). This goes beyond placing blame on others, whether you want to blame an agent or a casting director or a producer or a director that will enable those “lookalikes” that can pass for one of us to get booked to play one of us, this goes beyond whatever, disregard, laziness or lack of respect that may exist within the industry... (And read this twice or as many times it takes you to understand it), because it simply comes down to you! It comes down to your conscience being the judge and your capability to be an understanding human being without certain egos. It is simply up to you and only you to make the right choice and to valiantly say no to a part that clearly goes beyond “a look” and “the ability to imitate an accent”, hey I know it’s doable, I’ve done it in the past myself, —and I’m sorry for extending myself, it’s a trait of our Latin mind, we’re flowery and descriptive with language... But anyway, this is what I would hope for as your takeaway here and the answer to your questions: There is a huge, and let me repeat that: There is a huge difference between “playing” someone else’s cultural background AND being able to “play a type” within your own cultural background.


Quiet on the other end of the line... to the point that I had to ask if he was still there...

He said that he’s never had the topic explained this way. That I never got angry about the problems that exist. That I was humbly pleading for the powers that be to listen and that it is simply up to him to take a stand and make the right choice.

I appreciated those comments.


—Now I add this next humble point of view here as an afterthought for the decision makers out there, the ones “in charge of a vulnerable artist’s journey”, the artistic directors, producers and Casting people. And I could insert a bunch of actual examples from my own experiences in the business, but I will choose not to, in order to not turn this into a “petty gossipy post”: Please... the one thing I ask of you, don’t just talk the talk (about trying to find the right person for the job, don’t claim that you are being inclusive, that you are trying to learn how to be an ally to our past, history and struggles, don’t tell us that you’re searching far and wide for the right fit) if then you’re just going to turn around and go with a “lookalike” in a part specifically written for a Latinx actor. And this has nothing to do with the lack of talent out there. If there was a lack of us, I’d book every single part I read for. I get it, that was an issue when I first started out. There were only a few handful of us, so yes it was necessary and understandable to look beyond our cultural background as you were trying to find someone, but nowadays that shouldn’t be an issue or an excuse, plenty of authentic, kick ass talent in the pool.

And look a Chevy or a Ford might be able to imitate a Range Rover or a Ferrari, but that car is still a car and will never be able to really be a 747 jet, it truly is the ancient cliché of apples and oranges. And like I said, this is my humble opinion and I don’t claim that this is the way it’s supposed to be... it’ll take years before the word “diverse” stops sounding threatening to some people, but we need to continue to find a solution to the cause and once we do, then comes the even deeper and bigger issue, which is to make sure that the parts that will finally be represented, aren’t just silly stereotypes that will end up causing more harm instead of helping build a more inclusive community that is true to life.


So go book, go have fun, go be an actor playing a diverse variety of characters and types within your own cultural background. There’s plenty to choose from... I know.


I wish you much love, your kick ass talent respect and your drive a ton of success!


Juanca



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